I had meant to only stop for a moment on the Lévi-Strauss, but there is a part that I just can’t seem to let go of. It popped out at me again after watching a cute movie from 2006 named Kamikaze Girls. Momoko, a “Rococo Loli,” (I had no idea this was a thing) is antisocial, shunning conventional friendships, preferring to dream of a life of frills and decadence. It’s not that she’s obsessed with French culture of the Rococo period as much as she’s obsessed with the style. It occurs to me that this style, across the ages, is transmitting a message which resonates with Momoko. That’s where the Lévi-Strauss comes in.
In a somewhat tortuous bit of prose in The Savage Mind, Lévi-Strauss outlines a semiotic take on the craft of the bricoleur, suggesting that the craftsman works with signs rather than concepts. In a leap along the linguistic analogy, he proposes that scientists and bricoleurs are constantly on the look out for messages. The messages collected by the craftsman/bricoleur are already transmitted in advance by “the commercial codes which are summaries of the past experience of trade and so allow any new situation to be met economically provided they are of the same class as some earlier one” (20).
So, the message received by Momoko from the French Rococo period was of use to her in meeting her present situation in some way. Given the narrative arc of the film, it makes a certain amount of sense; it seems to me that she’s looking for something genuine to latch onto while being raised by a father who made his fortune selling knock-off Versace. The decadence of two eras, mashed together in a truly bizarre fashion. Against a backdrop of cabbages and scooters, no less. No wonder the netflix robot picked it out for me.
The engineer/scientist looks for messages in a different fashion from the craftsman, “always on the look out for that other message which might be wrested from an interlocutor in spite of his reticence in pronouncing on questions whose answers have not been rehearsed” (20). Concepts are used to “open up” a contingency. The bricoleur “builds up structures by fitting together events, or rather the remains of events,” as these Japanese girls have; a human message, albeit a purely aesthetic one, feeds a culture centuries after its extinction in a diachronic chain of use and reuse. On the other axis, the engineer/scientist instead seeks to derive a synchronic structure from events. Lévi-Strauss turns to an earlier period in France to discuss the sort of messages one might get from a painting by Clouet.
The painting is chosen to discuss “the very profound aesthetic emotion which is, inexplicably, aroused by the highly realistic, thread by thread reproduction of a lace collar” (22). The painting is a miniature, which provokes Lévi-Strauss to observe that it is a case of knowledge of the whole preceding knowledge of the parts, an illusion “which gives rise to a sense of pleasure which can be aesthetic on these grounds alone” (24). Science would have worked on a real scale, inventing a loom to reproduce the collar while art produces “an image homologous with the object,” a metaphor rather than a scientific metonym.
Lévi-Strauss makes an interesting move to break the binary opposition of science and craft while discussing this painting. He places art in the place of mediating science and craft:
For if it is true that the relation of priority between structure and event is exactly the opposite in science and ‘bricolage,’ then it is clear that art has an intermediate position from this point of view as well. Even if, as we have shown, the depiction of a lace collar in miniature demands an intimate knowledge of its morphology and technique of manufacture (and had it been a question of representation of people of animals we should have said: of anatomy and physical attitudes), but it is not just a diagram or blueprint. It manages to synthesize these intrinsic properties with properties which depend on a spatial and temporal context. (25)
This passage reminds me of a conversation about poetry I had with a professor years ago: it was his contention that poetry required a level of expertise and knowledge about everything. While it seems unlikely that a painter of figures would be as aware as a doctor when it comes to anatomy, there is a grain of truth in the idea that they may actually better observers of anatomy than doctors when it comes to the minute particulars of an individual. It’s a grasp of something more than a diagram or a blueprint, but not perhaps as fine-grained a knowledge of say, vascular anatomy. But we are speaking here of a craft product:
The final product is the lace collar exactly as it is but so that at the same time its appearance is affected by the particular perspective. This accentuates some parts and conceals others, whose existence however still influences the rest through contrast between its whiteness and the colour of the other clothes, the reflection of the pearly neck that it encircles and that of the sky on a particular day and at a particular time of day. The appearance of the lace collar is also affected by whether it indicates casual or formal dress, is worn, either new or previously used, either freshly ironed or creased by an ordinary woman or a queen, whose physiognomy confirms, contradicts or qualifies her status in a particular social class, society, part of the world and period of history . . .The painter is always mid-way between design and anecdote, and his genius consists in uniting internal and external knowledge, a ‘being’ and a ‘becoming’, in producing with his brush an object which does not exist as such and which he is nevertheless able to create on his canvas. (25)
The crux of this mediation is summed up as a balance between natural and artificial structures and natural and social events. The emotion, according to Lévi-Strauss, comes from a union between “structural order” and the order of events; in the case of the artist, it’s a contrived circumstance that makes us aware of possibilities.
What does the lace mean? Obviously, in its actuality and not just in its artistic representation, it’s a matter of its ability to sustain echoes of culture, of feelings transmitted through structures. This, I think, makes tradition not something that we should be slaves to, but something we should be attentive to in order to maximize our possibilities. Far from constraining us, tradition affords us new universes that are not just echoes of dying cultures, but moments of feeling that keep us connected. It’s not simply the painter who is mid-way between design and anecdote; we all are.